Now that Dhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death for his part in the Boston Marathon bombings, and we are bracing ourselves for years of appeals, it's time to take stock of the death penalty.
If you get the chance, listen to
the podcast between David Boeri of WBUR and Kevin Cullen of the Boston Globe. The two newsmen covered the Boston Bombing trial from jury selection in January to the sentencing last week, and provided nearly daily reactions to what they saw and heard. Today, they discussed how the death sentences surprised some folks. Partly, that's because the public was not exposed to the full impact of the testimony, which, in the absence of a live feed from the courtroom, was mediated through news articles and artists' sketches -- no one but the jury saw autopsy pictures or photos of the most gruesome wounds. But partly that's because the jury was not representative of the citizenry of Eastern Massachusetts, which mostly opposes the death penalty. Since this was a federal death penalty case that just happened to take place in anti-death penalty Massachusetts, any juror who was morally opposed to imposing the sentence of death--allowable by federal law--was instantly disqualified from serving on the jury. It's curious, then, that the jury system--which is supposed to try defendants before a jury of their peers--has been skewed so strikingly toward one variety of those peers.
It's been clear, from reading my posts, that I have no great love for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His actions in placing the second bomb in front of a crowded restaurant and behind the Richard family (he stood behind them for four full minutes before detonating his device) were deliberate, reprehensible and heinous. His activities were filmed and videotaped. There is no question that he did the deed, and his defense didn't even contest his guilt. In her opening statements, defense attorney Judy Clarke famously said, "It was him." During the sentencing phase of the trial, the defense was feeble, unable to bring up any truly mitigating factors. Was he remorseful? No evidence was provided except by a a nun who is active against capital punishment. Was he deranged? Though his family had big issues, he was a regular dude, said his friends. He had been a nice boy when he was 8 years old, said his Russian family members. Nothing was introduced that explained how this nice boy turned into a flint-faced monster.
Dzhokhar's stony, impassive demeanor throughout the trial betrayed no sign that he felt bad about his actions or had been coerced by his older brother and co-conspirator Tamerlan. His political motivations were left unexplored. His mental health is solid. As far as anyone knows, he is unrepentant. If anyone deserved to be deprived of life, it is Dzokhar Tsarnaev.
Curiously, the defense put forth the argument that sentencing Dzkar to life in prison was a far worse punishment than death. Though it snows there only four days a year, they showed Siberia-like photos of the Super Max prison in Colorado where Tsarnaev would likely be held. He would live in a tiny cell for 23 hours of each day, being allowed out of his cell for one hour out of every 24. He would have few visitors - fewer than normal, since his family is in Russia. His mail would be severely limited. He would be granted no interviews with the media. He would, in effect, disappear. It's a fate that has driven some prisoners to madness and self-mutilation.
But I found the argument curious. If death was such a bad option -- partly because it amounts to little more than vengeance against the accused, then why sell life in prison as even more punishing than death? If it's morally wrong to get revenge on a murderer by killing him, why is it more palatable morally to get even more vengeance by keeping him alive? Aren't we sinning more in an attempt to avoid sinning?
I have to admit that the one time I felt empathy for Tsarnaev was in imagining a life deprived of human contact and intellectual stimulation. If anything would drive me mad, it would be he alternative of television 23 hours a day or dead silence. Even a life filled with nothing but reading books would hardly merit my attention. Why read books when I can't contribute to society or even discus them? Surely, the deepest parts of hell are co-located in the lonely cells of our "correctional" system.
I wonder whether depriving someone like Dzhokhar of life might be the merciful solution. BEfore you answer, take a look at the graphic for this story and imagine living alone in such a prison for the rest of your life. Then tell me that the death penalty is immoral.